Homeless? There's an app for that

March 7, 2019 (1662 words) :: The great delusion of startup culture is that basically every problem can be solved with a startup, even a social problem like homelessness.
Tags: startups, housing, inequality

This post is day 66 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.


Yesterday, FastCompany published an article in their “world-changing ideas” section about a mobile app that purports to help homeless people: This app tells you the stories of your homeless neighbors. The gist of it is that this Seattle-based startup, Samaritan, will hand out Bluetooth-enabled beacons to homeless people, and passersby who have the app on their phone will get a push notification, allowing them to read this person’s story (as opposed to just talking to them?) and donate to them (but not in cash - in credit that can be redeemed at a very limited selection of “approved” stores).

Among the replies to the tweet are some true gems, including the following exchange:

Twitter exchange screenshot This startup is based in Seattle, but the broader point is accurate.

Not long after, Jacobin posted a screenshot of the tweet on Facebook, with the caption “What if we just built more social housing”. That post also attracted some great replies, including my personal favourite:

Facebook comment screenshot saying, Let's focus on ending the economic system thats leads to homelessness, shall we? Solidarity, not charity.

As you’ve probably already guessed, the point of this fragment is to clarify why I think this app, though well-meaning, is a bad idea. Before I do that, some allowances: at least the founder is actually trying to do good, unlike most startup founders. And it may even do some good in the short term, if it works - it could make some people’s lives slightly less shitty for a bit.

The problem is that the whole premise of the app is flawed. That homeless people have to rely on others’ generosity merely in order to subsist should not be thought of as a situation that could be made more convenient via an app. It is an indignity. It is a symptom of societal failure. It is an artefact of a bad paradigm, and one that should be abolished entirely.

It’s incredibly depressing that we live in a world where people who have been shoved into the margins of society have to rely on others’ charity just to survive, and some people react by asking, “How do I insert my for-profit startup into these transactions in my quest to monetise the rot?” It reminds me of an old saying: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re a tech bro who thinks startups are the apotheosis of societal progress, even profoundly political problems seem ripe for tech-fueled disruption, solvable with the right mobile app.

Alas, sometimes the problem cannot be solved with a for-profit startup, because the profit motive is how we got into this mess in the first place. To put it in the most charitable way possible: this app is a local maximum, not a global one. To put it less kindly, it’s a terrible solution. It’s wielding a hammer in front of something that is decidedly not a nail. If you care about homelessness and want to work on addressing it, why not take the time to seek out the best use of your time and resources, rather than automatically assuming that a mobile app is the best solution?

More broadly, this idea seems symptomatic of a larger ideological phenomenon in our neoliberal era: a common fantasy that you can solve societal problems without changing the underlying structure of society. To solve homelessness, we don’t need to tackle the underlying structures that gave rise to it, like housing being an asset or enormous economic inequality - we just need an app to make it easier to give money to homeless people.


To be fair, making it easier to give money to homeless people is not a bad thing in itself. Some of the backlash to this particular app has to do with its for-profit business model, which involves making money through transaction fees; if a similar app were introduced by a non-profit, it would probably not have drawn such a negative response. But a big part of the problem is the way this “charity” comes with strings attached. The app is not just a means to help homeless people get money - it’s also a mask for a system of social control, whereby recipients are only allowed to spend the money they’ve received at a specific list of places. Applying the money to other uses requires outside permission, as the FastCompany article reports:

[…] someone using a beacon can also bring it to a counselor and ask to apply the funds to something else, like a phone bill or a Greyhound ticket. Like merchants, a counselor uses the app to designate the purchase or issue cash or a prepaid card. (Despite not having free access to the funds immediately, Kumar says that people using the system haven’t said that this makes them feel distrusted.)

Why this limitation? I suspect it stems from a worldview that sees homeless people as having fucked up in some way, and needing guidance (even if paternalistic and overly controlling) to get their life back in order. If homeless people would just make better life decisions - i.e., better purchasing choices - then maybe they wouldn’t be homeless anymore. In this view, the system as a whole is fine; the sheer preponderance of homelessness is an inevitable result of any system, not an indictment of this particular one. Homelessness is the problem of individuals who’ve simply failed to succeed within this perfectly reasonable system.

It’s a comforting view, and plausible too, at least if you have no understanding of the empirical realities of modern-day capitalism. That view starts to fall apart when you hear stories about no-fault evictions and rising cost of living despite stagnant wages, though - then, you start to see homelessness as not an individual problem but a collective one. Rather than individuals having failed within a system, we should see it as the system having failed those individuals. When housing is made into a commodity and hidden behind a monetary gate rather than provided as a right, the result is a system that serves the already wealthy (landlords, developers, etc) at the expense of the poor. Policing the consumption habits of people who have become homeless after the fact is not going to change the system that is structurally incentivised to produce homelessness - that approach gets the logic exactly backwards.

A little under two years ago, when I was (unbeknownst at the time) reading my way toward socialism, I read a book called Evicted, by Matthew Desmond, an ethnographic account of poverty in Milwaukee through the lens of housing. It’s not really a socialist book, but it’s still gripping, and I learned a lot from it. I was particularly struck by chapter 18, titled “Lobsters on food stamps”, which had the most thoughtful examination of structural poverty I’d encountered at the time:

Before her eviction, Beaker had asked Larraine why she didn’t just sell her jewelry and pay Tobin [her landlord]. “Of course I’m not going to do that,” she said. “I worked way too hard for me to sell my jewelry….I’m not going to sell my life savings because I’m homeless or I got evicted.” It wasn’t like she had just stumbled into a pit and would soon climb out. Larraine imagined she would be poor and rent-strapped forever. And if that was to be her lot in life, she might as well have a little jewelry to show for it. She wanted a new television, not some worn and boxy thing inherited from Lane and Susan. She wanted a bed no one else had slept in. She loved perfume and could tell you what a woman was wearing after passing her on the sidewalk. “Even people like myself,” Larraine said, “we deserve, too, something brand-new.”

and

People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps.


Going back to this startup. As irrational and shortsighted as I think it is, I don’t necessarily blame the founder for taking this approach. It’s not like the founder has the power to build social housing anyway - he’s just doing the best he can, with the tools he has, to alleviate a bad situation.

For me, the point of critiquing misguided startups like this one is not to demonise individual founders, but to illuminate the flawed incentives that led to their creation in the first place. As always, my critique is a structural critique, lamenting the economic system that enables an app like this to be funded while the root of the problem is left unaddressed.

It’s a bad economic system, is what it is. It’s especially bad when it comes to providing housing.

This startup, Samaritan, is not just a silly startup, apropos of nothing; it’s a fairly reasonable approach to addressing homelessness given the current neoliberal climate. You can think of it as a tool in the neoliberal toolbox. It may even be one of the better tools, given that other tools include things like street sweeps, confiscating tents, and I don’t know, just hoping they or leave or die or something I guess.

All these tools are the policy equivalent of hammers. Hammers can be useful sometimes, but at this point, I think we need a new toolbox entirely.


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